Open Standards and Libre Software in Government, The Hague, 18 November 2004

by Rowan Wilson on 26 November 2004 , last updated

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FLOSSPOLS’ Open Standards and Libre Software in Government conference , The Hague, 18 November 2004, was organised by MERIT, with support from the European Commission’s Information Society Technologies (IST) programme and the Dutch Ministries of Economic Affairs and Internal Affairs, and was prepared in cooperation with the Dutch government’s Programme OSOSS. Billed as an unrivalled platform in which to discuss open standards and the viability of Libre Software in the design and implementation of affordable, scalable, secure eGovernment services, it did not disappoint.

Opening Session

Frans Nauta, Secretary of the Dutch Innovation Platform, kicked off the proceedings with a general plea for cooperation and trust. The DIP is a forum chaired by the Prime Minister and responsible for coordinating Dutch policy on education, research, technology and innovation. Nauta’s message was that the participatory principles of Libre Software are to be cherished. He called for a European regimen of intellectual property management which stimulated use and innovation, and told us that “there is a business case for trust”. Curiously, he completed his presentation by playing a James Taylor song called The Secret O’ Life, saying that its lyrics were a distillation of his points.

Colm Butler, Director of the Information Society Policy within the Department of the Taoiseach, spoke next. His points centred around the confusion that exists in the European public sector at the level of generalist management. There was a lack of understanding of the meaning of terms like open source and open standard, and a perception that these terms had innately political, even radical, meanings. Solving this problem of misunderstanding is the job of the open source community, which should work to present simple, uncontentious explanations of these concepts for management within the public sector. Another problem Butler pointed out was the large costs involved in bidding for public sector work. Small vendors find it difficult to meet this cost, and also suffer from the perception that they are impermanent, when compared with their larger rivals. Addressing this problem could be a way to encourage the use of Libre Software and open standards in the public sector, he suggested.

Finally Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, the conference organiser, spoke to us, presenting the initial findings of the FLOSSPOLS survey of use of and attitudes to Free and Libre Software in Government in Europe. Italy emerged as a clear leader in the use of Libre Software in government, with Germany and France also showing wide use. Of the six countries for whom initial results were shown to us, the UK was a distant fifth, just ahead of Greece. 40% of UK respondents said that they would not find it useful to increase their use of Free and Libre Software. As the survey is only partially complete, it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from these data. Other interesting findings included (supporting Colm Butler’s point) that there is a poor understanding of open standards among respondents, and also that spending on software licensing was between 25 and 30% of government IT budgets. This is a huge amount, and more than the usual estimates of around 5%.

Initial Focus Sessions

Next there followed two useful sessions focusing on the examples of the region of Extremadura in Spain, and also of the German Federal Government’s migration plans.

Luis Casas Luengo, Managing Director of the Foundation for the Development of Science and Technology (FUNDECYT), told us about the successful use of a regionally-customised Linux distro as a tool to spread IT literacy. The project involved connecting schools and some other public buildings to the internet, and installing PCs running a Linux desktop for the use of locals. This was accomplished in one year, rather than the projected three, and resulted in the training of seventy five thousand first time computer users. To aid the educational process, the desktop icons were customised to appropriate local sights and celebrities, for example a famous local writer as an icon for the word processing software. Having succeeded so markedly in their first aim, the Extremadura local government then set about promoting the use of their customised Linux to local businesses. They persuaded a local software firm to open their accounts package and distribute it with Linux. This has resulted in the software firm expanding. Other local governments in Spain are now looking at repeating Extremadura’s successful strategy. Devolution of local government was a key factor in the ability of the region to achieve these goals, Luengo said. He also pointed out that open source solutions fitted the local government funding model extremely well - large outlay initially with costs declining over time.

Gregor Lietz, of the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, spoke to us about the efforts within German government to standardise the information services they provide. With three levels of government (local/regional/national) and no centrally defined IT policy, there are currently a wide variety of IT infrastructures in German government. The Ministry of the Interior has proposed a standardised framework of services and data standards that all sectors of German government should adopt, called SAGA (Standards and Architectures for eGovernment Applications), and then published extensive guidelines on migration to this framework. A second version is due to be published at the end of 2004, which will also deal with xml-based office application interoperability, and legal issues surrounding intellectual property and digital rights. Lietz made the point that the transition to electronic provision of government information and citizen access would be pointless if it brought with it all the inefficiencies of previous non-electronic processes. The program is to re-engineer the processes while facilitating access to them electronically. When the program is complete, all eGovernment information portals will be integrated into a single point of access called DeutschlandOnline.

Experience at the European and National Level

Agnes Bradier of the eGovernment Unit at the European Commission chaired this session and began by detailing the work of the unit and the many initiatives and projects it supports. Her message was that the EU is committed to fully exploring the benefits of Free and Libre Software and specifically its use in eGovernment. Bradier then introduced the first speaker, Mark Bressers of Programma OSOSS, the Programme for Open Standards and Open Source Software in government. Bressers repeated the message that Gregor Lietz had emphasised in his talk: that European government is complex, particulate and multi-tiered. The Netherlands has sixteen hundred governing bodies of various coverage. There has been considerable impetus towards examining the possibilities offered by Free and Libre Software within the Dutch government at all levels. Many local city councils have adopted open source desktop solutions, and the Ministry of the Interior has released the software that runs Dutch voting machines under an open source licence. The National Agency for Water Management, who control the vital Dutch flood defences, use a Linux cluster to manage their work. Bressers also echoed Colm Butler’s point that the notion that open source was an idealistic, almost political movement was a barrier to uptake within the public sector. OSOSS seeks to make sure that open source software is granted a level playing-field in public sector software purchases, and provide advice on areas of concern to management like liability.

Christian Hardy of the French Ministry of Economics, Finance and Industry then spoke to us about the use of Free and Libre Software in French government. Project Adele is an initiative by the French government to make administration more effective while also making the transition to electronic provision of information. Adele currently funds one hundred and forty projects to this end, including internal educational drives on the Free Software and collaborative development tools, and movement to an open source-based desktop. Hardy also gave many examples of use of Free and Libre Software in French government, including the use of Zope by the Ministry of Culture for its web site, and a secured Mandrake Linux distro in use by the French Ministry of Defence. Hardy also told us that, despite OpenOffice being made available to government employees within his ministry, use of Microsoft Office had not dropped significantly, and a coordinated program on migration would be required to make any significant change. Within the minsitry pdf was used for document interchange, while when dealing with external bodies Word doc files were sent.

Thomas Myrup Kristensen of the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation described the Danish government’s efforts to assess the economic effects of moving to the use of Free and Libre Software. Last year the Danish Board of Technology completed a report on the economic effects of moving to Open Source for government bodies which showed savings of several billion Danish Kroner a year. The Danish Software Strategy is a document published by the Danish government which states policy on software acquisition. It aims to set up a level playing-field for all forms of software, while emphasising the need to avoid lock-in and promote interoperability. It also states the need to establish a reliable Total Cost of Ownership model that can be used to reliably assess software to be purchased. Currently the Danish government is running various studies to this end.

Rolf Theodor Schuster of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs told us how he had overseen the transition of Germany’s foreign embassy communication traffic to an open source-based set of solutions. Back in 2001 the Ministry was paying for data transfer on a cost and distance basis, which had proved extremely expensive (one widely distibuted email with a pdf file attachment had ended up costing 2000 euros). Clearly a solution was needed, but the problem was a large one: a secure worldwide network of two hundred and twenty locations covering over one thousand staff. Other priorities were to build a scalable and minimally complex solution while expanding the functionality to grant email accounts to all staff. This has now been achieved, using mainly Free and Libre Software including OpenLDAP, Postgres, Apache, Samba and Webmin. Security is provided by a VPN implementation provided by the Federal Security Office called SINA. This runs on Linux.

Finally in this session Giovanna Sissa of the Osservatorio Tecnologico within the Italian Ministry of Research and Education spoke about the promotion of Free and Libre Software to the schools sector in Italy. A survey conducted in 2003 by the Ministero Innovazione Tecnologica concluded that the education could benefit greatly from the use of Free and Libre Software. Italian schools buy their software indepently, and currently most adopt proprietary solutions. The Osservatorio Tecnologico was set up in 2000 with the aim of sharing ICT expertise from research, comapnies and universities with the schools sector. Osservatorio Tecnologico focuses actively promotes the growth of an open source skills community within IT staff in Italian schools.

After what had been a marathon series of sessions, lasting from 9am to 1pm, we all launched into the delicious buffet lunch with gusto.

Experience at the Regional / Local Level

Returning from lunch we were greeted by the chair of the next session, Wilbert Stolte, Vice-Mayor of Den Haag, who told us of ICT use within our beautiful host city. Den Haag has two portals for the use of its citizens, one for municipal services and another more general one for residents and local businesses to communicate. This latter portal includes, for example, a ‘Wedding Portal’ which helps prospective brides and grooms plan their nuptuals in association with local SMEs. The municipal portal is based upon open standards.

Alasdair Mangham, from the London Borough of Camden was the first to present in this session. Having been involved in several open source development projects while in his post as Programme Manager for the Camden’s eServices Development Team, Alasdair Mangham had much good useful information to impart to other public sector employees in a similar role. The APLAWS project is an Open Source Content Management System aimed at UK Local Authorities. It was developed with funding from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to address the unsuitablity of currently available CMS’s to the needs of local government, and it had been successful both in terms of functionality and uptake. Mangham stressed that where proprietary systems were not suitable for use in the public sector, finding open source development was a good and viable alternative. There were some obstacles however. Companies that can provide open source development skills tends to be SMEs, and ill-equipped to deal with the time-consuming and expensive process of government tendering. They also frequently don’t have a sales team. Finally they expect a lot from their clients, in the sense that they expect them to have well-formed views on what they are trying to buy, and this can also be problematic. Public bodies wanting to fund open source development need to be prepared to contribute project management skills to the endeavour, and foster a community around the resulting software inasfar as they can. The benefits from overcoming these obstacles were a reduced cost structure after the initial outlay, and the ability to absorb the enhancements to the software made by others into your own infrastructure.

Antonella Sfettina of the Province of Genova, Italy, spoke about the ICTE-PAN project (Intelligent Collaboration and Transaction Environments in Public Administration Networks) which aims to develop high-level collaboration and process-modelling solutions for public administration. To this end they have helped to create an open source application called MERMIG, which appeared to be both complex and comprehensive.

Jan van de Straat, from the City of Haarlem in the Netherlands demonstrated an internally developed web-based solution for creating word processor documents to a house style.

Robin Weissenberger from the City of Vienna explained how a feasibility study into migration of the city administration’s sixteen thousand Windows 2000 desktop PCs had been carried out. Of these sixteen thousand, it was found that roughly seven and a half thousand could easily have their office applications replaced with Open Office without altering the users’ working practises. Of that seven and half thousand, four thousand eight hundred could also have the underlying operating system substituted with Linux according to the same criterion. The study found that although the savings on licensing would be considerable, the short-term internal costs of the migration would be high, and needed to be distributed over time to be manageable.

Finally Flavia Marzano of the Union of Italian Provinces described the Italian policy towards Free and Libre Software. A committee was formed to look at the use of Free and Libre Software in public administration, and provide information for politicians to help them form policy on the issue. The committee recommended that value for money should be the main criterion for selection of software solutions, and that the use of Free and Libre Software should not be penalised. It also recommended that issues such as data interoperability, avoidance of lock-in and transferability of custom software be fully recognised. This resulted in a government directive in late 2003 on “Development and use of computer programs from Public Administrations” which essentially mandated these recommendations. Some Italian regions such as Tuscany have introduced local laws encouraging open source usage, and many regions use Free and Libre Software themselves. Marzano made the point forcefully that organisational resistance was a barrier to uptake, and that politicians need to understand the issues involved in order to make informed decisions.

Interoperability and Open Standards

The final session was ably chaired by Bernhard Schnittger of the European Commission.

First to speak was Mark Bressers, returning to talk about one of OSOSS’ projects - the Dutch Catague of Open Standards - and the reasoning behind it. The catalogue is maintained by OSOSS staff and specialist volunteers from other agencies, and currently contains entries on six hundred and sixty open standards. Of course, there is some argument over what constitutes an open standard. For these purposes OSOSS apply the following definition: it must be published, maintained by a not-for-profit organisation, charges for use must be low enough to not present a barrier to uptake and it must be managed by a group with an open decision-making procedure. While the catalogue provided useful information, Bressers noted that it would perhaps benefit from data on the uptake and usage of a given standard. There were also issues with standards which did not conform perfectly to the criteria, but were nevertheless commonly thought of as open.

Next up was Barbara Held of the European Commission, who told us about the European vision of interoperability. This interoperability is needed at three separate levels. Firstly member states must define their internal administrative processes in such a way as to produce clearly defined ‘business interfaces’ in order to make inter-state cooperation less complex. Secondly technical interoperability is required, in the sense of defining well-understood technical interfaces between member states’ information systems using open standards. Thirdly there is a need for semantic interoperability: member states need to produce data in well-described and consistent ways in order to facilitate the first two interoperability tasks. To this end the Commission has funded a programme to look into “Interchange of Data between Administrations” (IDA). Among the projects being considered for the future is a common XML repository for the European Union public administration.

Phil Zamani of Novell gave a presentation on the the benefits of open source to enterprise which, although interesting in itself, did not really address the topic of the session.

Finally Doug Heintzmann of IBM presented on the business case for the use of open standards, and how readily IBM embraced them.


The FLOSSPOLS ‘04 conference was stimulating - a marvellously synoptic presentation of the issues of FLOSS usage in the European public sector. Many participants seemed to have reached the same conclusions on both the benefits and the difficulties. Repeatedly the analogy was drawn between the effort to make the process of government itself more optimal and transparent, and the need to implement these processes using non-proprietary software and open standards - a marriage of open government and open source.

On the negative side, many drew attention to the incompatibilities between the public sector tendering process and the sales procedures of many small practitioners of open source programming. The solution to this was not clear - although it was obvious from Alasdair Mangham’s presentation that these difficulties could be overcome with enough will on the part of IT Managers within the public sector. Colm Butler’s observation - that many public sector managers see open source as some kind of revolutionary movement and are therefore wary of it - is more difficult to address. Butler stated that it was the job of the open source community to tackle this misunderstanding, but it is difficult to see how that can be achieved without a well-motivated desire to learn more on the part of those who feel that way. Perhaps that desire will come as a result of the success of the many admirable projects and programs described at this conference.